Tearing the Silence
by Ursula Hegi


Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1998. ISBN 068484611X.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 10/14/2004

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Anthologies/Collections

Tearing the Silence by Ursula Hegi tells the unique and sometimes painfully insightful stories of sixteen German men and women, including the author herself, who were born just after World War II. They are the now-adult children of the German families who lived in Germany during the years of Hitler's Third Reich.

Unlike the many books that have been written about the Jewish experience in concentration camps, these interviewees are the children of Christian families who were not driven out of Germany, but who suffered the consquences of living in wartorn Germany, and their parents' refusal to talk about the atrocities occurring openly in their daily lives.

To her great credit, the author does not paraphrase what she learned from her interviewees. She records their answers faithfully. As I read, I can hear the accents, the speakers' sometimes awkward phrasing, and the wholehearted sincerity of these emigres as they responded thoughtfully and conscientiously to Hegi's probings concerning their lives during this troubling time in our history.

Each interviewee discussed the resentment and often anger they still feel toward their parents for hiding the truth from them, for refusing to answer their questions or for dismissing them with, "We didn't know," or "We just did what we were told." Many of them talk about how their parents' silence and evasions resulted in their own stifling sense of inferiority and lack of trust. Many of them admitted that they still grapple with those feelings today.

I was deeply touched as I read the complicated and conflicting feelings discussed because I too am German, though, being Jewish, my family fled in time to avoid the war. And I too was turned away when I questioned my parents about why we had to leave. I know now that my parents were unable to discuss the trauma of being evicted from their beloved homeland--the country that defined their heritage and which they could not bear to leave. As one woman told Hegi, "You write about things most of us don't dare to look at." Johanna admits to a sentiment many of us share: "If this can be done by human beings, it can be done by me. She asks over and over, "What can we do so this will never happen again?"

Hans-Peter believes that it is already happening again. When visiting Germany he saw the hatred against the foreigners whom Germans believe are stealing their jobs. He saw again how groups of people insist that they are superior to others. He lives with the feeling (and fear) that someone may one day treat him with the same hatred, the same unmitigated violence, and that the same discrimination will start all over again.

A subject that comes up frequently among the interviewees is the dilemma of feeling neither at home in America nor at home in Germany: They feel too German to feel like true Americans and too American to ever feel at home again in Germany.

In addition to their disorientation, there is much shame around being German: "How can we expect others not to hate us for what we have done?" The author tells the story about her fourteen-year-old son Eric's friend, who, upon learning that she is German, asks: "Does that mean you are a Nazi?" She hears the question and can hardly breathe.

Hegi writes about the obedience to authority that was ingrained in all of us and in most of German citizenry, generation after generation. Marika tells us how she believed that if she did exactly as she was told, if she was just "good enough," everything would turn out all right... both in the political future of her country and in her steadily deteriorating marriage. She believed that under no circumstances must she "make waves," or she would "lose everything."

I must say here that this is not just a German way of being. It is universally human to want to take the easier, smoother road. That is why this book has much to offer everyone. I was moved to tears as well as uplifted with admiration as I read the stories of these postwar men and women who experienced firsthand the evils of the Third Reich and have the courage to speak about it.

Hegi, in my view, expresses what is most important in her book when she reminds us of the importance of taking the time to talk with one another... not just about the good things in our lives but about our worries and conflicts as well. She admits there may be pain involved..."But that is only a part of it; there is so much more." Speaking openly and with trust will lead to a greater understanding of ourselves and of one another, and much tragedy will be averted that comes from the refusal to discuss and confront our uncertainties and different points of view.

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